Rauf Report: Iowa’s ceiling, Creighton’s inconsistency and more weekly takeaways

Brian Rauf highlights his biggest takeaways from the past week in college basketball in a brand new Rauf Report.

Welcome into a new Rauf Report, where I highlight my biggest takeaways from the past week in college basketball.

It’s hard to believe that we’ve already hit the home stretch of the season with a month left until the start of conference tournaments and much of the country at this point has separated themselves into distinct tiers. We know who the title favorites are (Baylor, Gonzaga), we know their biggest competition, we know who might threaten to make a run, teams that appear to be safely in the NCAA Tournament, bubble teams, and so on. While there is constant shuffling within a single tier, there aren’t many teams that have been able to jump up from one tier to the next.

Ohio State has been the most notable exception to that rule.

The Buckeyes moved to 15-4 on the season following Thursday’s victory over Iowa, their fourth road victory over a ranked team in the last month (Rutgers, Illinois and Wisconsin are the others). They have now won seven of their last eight games — including four in a row — to push into the tier of potential contenders behind Baylor and Gonzaga. Offensively, Ohio State has been playing as well as anyone during this stretch (79.6 ppg) and looks like a potential Final Four team.

Iowa, meanwhile, does not. I had concerns about Iowa’s defense in the preseason and it has become incredibly apparent that its struggles on that end severely limit its potential. That’s where we will start this week’s Rauf Report.

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Iowa’s ceiling

The Hawkeyes were ranked in the top five for most of the season but after losing to Ohio State, we’ll likely see them fall out of the top 10. It was their third loss in four games, allowing over 80 points in each of those losses.

In fact, that 80-point mark has been significant. When they hold opponents to fewer than 80, the Hawkeyes are 12-0. When opponents score 80 or more, Iowa is just 1-5.

Iowa’s offense is one of the most efficient in the country — continually exchanging the top spot with Gonzaga — and that makes up for a lot of its defensive struggles. That said, those struggles really come into play when the Hawkeyes face better competition that either, a) have good offenses themselves, or b) have a defense that can at least slow their attack.

Fran McCaffery’s squad has already faced 10 teams that currently rank in the KenPom top 45. The Hawkeyes are an even 5-5 in those games with six of those 10 being the teams that scored at least 80.

Those struggles against tournament-caliber teams, along with what history tells us about similar defenses, are a major red flag when it comes to projecting Iowa’s NCAA Tournament hopes. Here’s a look at how teams with similar efficiency numbers have fared in the Big Dance:

Table via barttorvik.com. Click to enlarge.

Bottom line — not great!

Averaging less than one victory per tournament is not the ideal scenario for a team projected to be a high seed. The three teams that most accurately match Iowa’s efficiency profile — Wake Forest, Missouri and Oklahoma State — all failed to win a game. The Missouri comp is particularly alarming with the Hawkeyes in line for a similar seed.

I don’t bring this up to say I’m going to pick Iowa to lose to a No. 15 seed because I’m not. But based on what the Hawkeyes have shown us and what history tells us, their lackluster defense likely means their season won’t result in a long NCAA Tournament run.

Losses by Villanova and Houston are nothing to worry about … for now

Wednesday may have been the most unpredictable and upset-filled day of the season to this point.

The two most jarring of those results were Villanova’s loss to St. John’s and ECU’s victory over Houston. It’s the first time — and will probably be the only time — this season in which two top five teams lost to unranked foes on the same day.

Normally, upset losses like these happen when an opponent is able to highlight and expose an area of weakness in the higher ranked team which, in turn, raises some concern. I don’t think that’s the case for either Villanova or Houston. The Wildcats simply suffered from an off shooting night while the Cougars were the victim of a suddenly red-hot ECU team.

Villanova is one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country, making 36.6 percent of its shots from deep as a team. Against St. John’s, the Wildcats were a dismal 26.7 percent (8-of-30). Yes, the Red Storm’s defensive pressure played a major role, but it was the first time this season in which pressure forced the Wildcats to shoot such a low percentage.

It was just one of those nights.

ECU, on the other hand, couldn’t miss. The Pirates shot 47.4 percent from the floor and 45.8 percent from deep in their upset win over the Cougars. Not only are both of those numbers considerably more than what Houston’s excellent defense usually allows — second nationally in eFG% defense and fourth in three-point defense — they’re also abnormally strong for ECU, which is not a great shooting team (104th in eFG%, 103rd in 3P%).

It was just one of those nights.

If either of these trends continue, then I will start to worry about Villanova and Houston. But, right now, these appear to be one-off situations caused by the kind of hot/cold shooting nights that just happen every now and again in college basketball.

It’s time to worry about Creighton

One team I am worried about, however, is Creighton. The Bluejays suffered a disappointing home loss to Georgetown during the crazy Wednesday, marking their third loss in their last six games and the latest poor performance in a string of less-than-ideal outings.

Creighton’s overall resume looks impressive at the top. They’re 3-1 against Quad 1 teams that 8-2 against Quads 1 & 2. Not bad at all! However, home losses to Georgetown and Providence during this stretch have dropped their record in Quad 3 games to just 1-3. The Bluejays are No. 34 in the latest NET rankings, yet those three Q3 losses are more than any other team in the top 93 (UNC Greensboro also has three such losses and are No. 94).

I wrote about concerns I had with their defense back in December, and they’ve fixed a lot of those issues (even if allowing 86 points to Georgetown might suggest otherwise). There have been games where they uncharacteristically struggle with turnovers and sometimes the rebounding margin is too much to overcome, which isn’t uncommon for a small team.

However, the biggest trend lately has been Creighton’s collective struggles from behind the arc. The Bluejays rank in the top 50 in the country in 3-point shooting but in six of their last 11 games, they have shot 30 percent or worse from distance. This is the main weapon in Greg McDermott’s offense, so it being this sporadic isn’t a great sign.

Those six games include:

  • A two-point overtime win over UConn (a game the Bluejays should have lost)
  • A five-point win over Xavier in a game they trailed by double digits
  • Losses to Butler and Providence
  • An eight-point win over UConn
  • A seven-point win over DePaul in which they trailed in the final 10 minutes

Now, when the three ball has been dropping, Creighton has looked like the Big East contender we all thought it would be in the preseason. But the Bluejays simply been too wildly variant in their shooting to maintain any kind of consistency.

And yes, shockingly, a team plays better when they make more shots. Who would’ve thought, right? I’m pointing out that Creighton’s play varies between two extremes based on this one element much more than others. It’s something that could come back to haunt this group early in the NCAA Tournament.

What should we make of Saint Louis?

Saint Louis was at the center of this week’s College Hoops Mailbag question about how teams may be over-seeded or under-seeded in the NCAA Tournament based on games played. Now, the Billikens are turning into a case study of what the selection committee will do with teams that endured extremely long COVID-19 pauses.

Travis Ford’s squad was 7-1 on Dec. 23 with what looked like quality, power-conference wins over LSU and NC State. They looked every bit the part of a top 25 squad and were ranked as such.

Well, Saint Louis has only played two games since the victory over UMKC and has lost both. The Billikens didn’t suit up again until Jan. 26 against Dayton, where a slow start sunk them in a five-point loss. A slow start was expected (after all, they hadn’t played in over a month), so no one really thought twice.

Saint Louis then went another week before playing again and, this time, lost to lowly La Salle. The Explorers have also managed to knock off Richmond and Dayton this season, yet they still come up as a Quad 3 loss for the Billikens. In fact, both losses this group has suffered since that long COVID pause are Quad 3 losses.

Obviously, if this is a start of a major downslide over the regular season’s final month, the Billikens will need to win the A-10 Tournament to earn an NCAA Tournament bid. But if they hold firm to KenPom projections and go 7-1 the rest of the way, they will be very much in the at-large conversation, and that’s where two Quad 3 losses can be the difference between a team making the tournament and being left out.

Will the committee treat these losses with leniency because of the circumstances leading up to them? Or will they decide they’re not the results of a tournament team considering they don’t have the quality wins to outweigh the poor results?

I hope the committee leans towards the former over the latter but, either way, the Billikens have virtually no margin for error.

The worst UNC-Duke game ever

You may or may not know this considering the unusually sporadic ESPN advertisements, but the first UNC-Duke game of the season is on Saturday. But this season’s first installment is missing almost all the elements that make this rivalry so great, which is probably why the reminders have been so few and far between.

I mean, yes, UNC and Duke are still there, which you obviously need for it to be a UNC-Duke game. However, the UNC/Duke-level talent or implications aren’t there.

Neither team has a projected lottery pick or anyone in the running for ACC Player of the Year. Neither team is even remotely close to challenging for the ACC title. Neither team is ranked! Heat Check CBB bracketologist Lukas Harkins has Duke missing the NCAA Tournament with the Tar Heels only projected to be a No. 10 seed.

There have been a handful of UNC-Duke games in which one team was having a down season, yet somehow the game itself never suffered. Like last year, for instance, the intensity was still there, and we ended up with one of the all-time great games in the rivalry despite the Tar Heels tracking to be the ACC’s worst team that season.

But there has never been a UNC-Duke game in which both teams were this bad. I have not done any research to back up this claim because it doesn’t feel like it’s necessary. Even if it’s wrong, that’s what it feels like. And without any fans in the stands, there won’t be the added intensity that makes this rivalry so great.

I live in the Raleigh area and grew up here, right in between the two schools. Locally, there’s always an intense buildup to this game. There hasn’t been this year. A lot of Duke fans have given up on the season and my friends who are UNC fans are joking that they’re a football school now given their recent basketball struggles and football resurgence under Mack Brown.

We’ll all watch the game like we always do since North Carolina will be facing Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium. But it will feel more like a game between middling ACC teams than anything else — because that’s what it is in 2021.

Brian Rauf
Brian Rauf

Heat Check CBB Lead National Writer